Sure as the sun sets in the west, no high-profile book adaptation is going to arrive without breeding angst over what made the leap to the screen and what didn’t, moreso when it’s nominated for a handful of Oscars. This is where the adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room finds itself, and with the author herself writing the screenplay of a five year-old born in a domestic prison to a young student and her heartless captor, it would seem to have the best possible chance not just of preserving the detail, but more importantly of bringing his baptism of fire to energetic life. The novel is told in first person, which places us in Jack’s jumbled headspace as he imparts crucial plot details by likening the outside world to that edited version he sees on a TV set. The subjectivity of experience doesn’t interest director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) nearly as much as having the intimate dynamic between his two leads — Jacob Tremblay as Jack and Brie Larson as his “Ma” — play out in suitably cramped spaces and telephoto frames. With both this semi-theatrical approach and a thoroughly ordinary editing schema in place, the production turns out to be as religiously beholden to the plot of the text, and only succeeds in browbeating it into that anodyne shape designed to lure the affections of the Academy.
Invoking spiritual reverence is ironic given how the film strips all of the book’s allusions to the Gospel. In the book, Ma’s faith plays as much a role in her codification of Jack’s abnormal infancy as personifying the mundane items littered around their cubic world, yet Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen (other Oscar favourites like The King’s Speech and Les Misérables) take exclusively to the latter in the film’s opening, with light bouncing off each of them as she attempts to send distress signals with a bedside lamp. It’s an artfully cut beginning (edited by Nathan Nungent, a past collaborator of Abrahamson’s) that is quickly swept away for a blunt approach where Tremblay reads passages from the book verbatim in montage, set to a simpering score from Stephen Rennicks (another Abrahamson colleague). I struggle to imagine someone keeping up with the confused, sandwiched turns of phrase Donoghue uses without having contextualised them on the page first, because the result is wordy and twee to the point of parody, and it doesn’t help when Sean Bridgers enters muttering and screaming like a costumed SNL player as kidnapper Old Nick, blaringly abject in a way not seen since Stanley Tucci’s turn in the similarly beset The Lovely Bones. Once the mother and son break free of his grasp and reconnect with Ma’s family, montages are leaned on yet again and Abrahamson and company transmute the liminal Samson myth surrounding Jack, whose thinks his own flowing hair gives him his “strong”, into a generic aphorism that falls especially flat in the wake of their previous 1:1 transpositions. “No one is strong enough on their own,” says his grandmother (Joan Allen) as though she were sagely nodding at Academy voters through their screeners.
Despite the pandering aesthetic and dialogue, there are glimpses of inspiration. The tension of the breakout sequence hinges on Jack internalising the wisdom that Ma imparts to him, and this carries over well from the book despite the emotional cheat of a This Will Destroy You needle drop, previously heard in the trailer for Moneyball (oh look, another recent Oscar contender). Tremblay dwells comfortably in silent scenes and resists broadness in his reactions to the outside world, which is remarkable for someone so young and does more to carry the re-settlement of the second half than even some of the older actors (William H. Macy seems especially lost in his own scenes, slipping into parody in a dinner stand-off that requires him to avoid catching Jack’s gaze like he’s the child from It’s Alive). But Brie Larson is the big draw, as her Golden Globe win has made clear, and she wholly deserves whatever commendations she pulls in. It’s not the dynamic she has with Tremblay, which sometimes lands purely through body posture in a condensed space, so much as the spitfire anger at having these mutant circumstances thrust upon her, both in Room and in the media that stalks her outside of it. She even revives aspects of the plot that would otherwise be limp, especially with one late complication, and it’s through that distinctive, piercing gaze, affronted and desperate and loving all at the same time.
By the time she and Tremblay close the door on their Plato’s Cave, the camera and score are rising as though Abrahamson had put rose-tinted lens on the camera, and it goes without saying that the book is the superior work. This is not for leaving out this or that piece of compelling minutiae, of which there’s undoubtedly a laundry list to be made. Room‘s omissions are the more sinister kind that the Oscars have long been guilty of, and which I seem bound to readdress once per ceremony: reducing complicated development and trauma to a sententious paste, and reinforcing typical ways of seeing through the illusion of atypicality. Here’s hoping that the new membership measures give rise to some less simplistic narratives and deliver on their inspiringly complicated talent.